By Anthony Akinola
The intellectual world will continue to remember Chinua Achebe for the literary magician that he undoubtedly was. He was one of those great writers who brought pride and honour to African literature; generations yet unborn will celebrate him.
However, there are two other reasons why the mention of his great name provokes thoughts in me. I once had the privilege of having to counter him on Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a political colossus of immortal memory. Achebe had in the aftermath of Awolowo’s death in 1987 concluded in an article that the reason Awolowo was not elected leader of Nigeria was because he was a “tribal leader”. This opinion was published in the New Nigerian newspaper.
I did not agree with that conclusion, not least because it did not take the realities of Nigerian politics, as they were at that time, into account. We had a federation in which political advantages skewed disproportionately in favour of the northern region to the detriment of the southern regions, one fact that Awolowo had to contend with in the First Republic.
In my rejoinder, published in West Africa magazine, I asked the great professor if the failure of his kinsman, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, to be elected leader of Nigeria was because he too was a “tribal leader”. Azikiwe had unsuccessfully “contested” the position of Prime Minister and President along with Awolowo in 1959, 1979 and 1983. Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun thought my rejoinder was reasonable and polite.
Thus, when there was a new controversy sparked off by Achebe’s last book, There was a country, I deliberately chose not to participate in the debate. To me, Achebe had demonstrated he was a world away from those politicians who would say one thing today and another tomorrow. The same politicians who worked determinedly to prevent Awolowo from realising his aspirations were the most vocal at his graveside, extolling what a great leader he was and how Nigeria could have been a better place with his leadership!
If all that Achebe wrote about Awolowo and others oozed from his conscience or feelings, so be it. It is a different matter altogether that they were contestable. I have some kind of sympathy for those of us who “poke-pen” into sensitive ethnic or religious issues. Quite a lot of readers seek fervently that “satanic verse”, something you might have “misguidedly” said about their group or leader and your books could soon be parcelled together for the incinerator, with some kind of “fatwa” decreed over you!
Now, to the more important reason Achebe’s memory resides in my thoughts. The great Achebe once had cause to bemoan our reading culture. He provoked the opprobrium of his fellow academics when he roped them in. He said they would rather chat away noisily than occupy themselves with reading while aboard the plane, unlike their American and British counterparts. Some of the intellectual elites did not quite enjoy this “lecturing” and there was this ridiculous “counter” that Achebe “did not even have a PhD degree”!
One was made to wonder what having or not having a PhD degree had to do with Achebe’s remark. Couldn’t we just have accepted that someone who was intelligent and concerned made an honest remark about his own people? If some had not perceived the PhD degree as an end itself, was there any of its then holders who did not wish they were Achebe in the eyes of the intellectual world? There is thus a temptation to sometimes despise others out of envy!
The point Achebe was making about our reading culture is as valid today as it was in the 1980s when he confronted us with it. The truly-educated person does not read solely because of an impending examination or a paper to be presented somewhere – a truly-educated person reads for general knowledge.
I have had the privilege of observing a population of book enthusiasts in Europe and America; you could see that they are the true descendants of the Mungo Parks, always wanting to discover something new. They want to know as much as possible about us while we are contented with knowing just a little, even about ourselves. They celebrate books and they make authors feel proud of their works by asking them for autographs!
Nigerians want to read and be knowlegeable; one could see how our young men and women cluster around vendors to be able to read newspapers they are not able to buy. When one observes their poverty-induced situation, the blame for our poor reading culture inevitably shifts to visionless and purposeless leadership. How many of our towns and villages have public libraries? How many of our educational institutions can boast being up to date and sufficient with books?
There is, today, this culture of “book launch”, which has somehow taken the shine out of true intellectualism. The so-called author and publisher hardly have the general public in mind when they write or publish their book. The publisher is quite happy to print a few hundred copies, with the ultimate aim of a jamboree launch that has targeted wealthy men and women who could donate tons of naira for a book they would never read.
The amount of money collected at a book launch presentation success of a book is judged by its impact and the number of those who have read it. With our type of national population of about 150 million inhabitants, a successful book should by now be selling upwards of 50,000 copies!
Knowledge is the only conqueror feared by ignorance. If we must place ourselves in a position to effectively compete with the developed world, education would undoubtedly be our number one priority. Transforming the minds of the people should be the first and most important step in the quest to transform society itself.
A forward-looking government would appreciate the value of public libraries, with enlightened men and women helping to sustain them. The late Achebe was right to have refused to accept honours and awards from corrupt and purposeless political leaders; what he would now not be able to reject is a world-class library in commemoration of his intellectual existence – my idea of a memorial and suggestion to whichever government, state or federal, that would want to celebrate the life of the great Chinua Achebe.
*My new book, Democracy in Nigeria: Thoughts and Selected Commentaries, is available online.
- Dr. Akinola wrote in from Oxford, United Kingdom via firstname.lastname@example.org